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  • Writer's pictureArchuleta A. Chisolm

3 Black History Literary Facts You May Not Know

Black history is something to celebrate every day. From civil rights leaders, award-winning authors, inventors, and 21st century women, our history is rich in America. Relegating our contributions and accomplishments to just one month out of the year is a dishonor.

Thanks to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Library of Congress, and others, we are able to expand our knowledge about Black history. There are so many little-known Black history facts that many of us just don’t know. Here are three pertaining to literature:

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, often referred to as the mother of African American literature, was the first African American to publish a book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. She was born in Gambia and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston when she was just 7 years old. After Phillis learned to read and write, she also learned Greek and Latin. She was of great intellect which the Wheatley family recognized and they encouraged her to write poetry. She was emancipated shortly after her book was released.

At Biden’s Inauguration, Amanda Gorman mentioned in her poem that she “was reciting for a president.” Well, so did Phillis Wheatley. She sent her poem “To His Excellency, General Washington” to the future president on Oct. 26, 1775, who responded and met with her in Boston on Feb. 28, 1776.

Amanda Gorman stands not only on the shoulders of Phillis Wheatley in speaking to the public, and to presidents, but was preceded by two African American women as inaugural poets: Maya Angelou who read “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s swearing-in in 2009.

Lucy Terry

On August 25, 1746, when Lucy Terry was 22, two neighboring white families were killed in an Indian attack in a section of Deerfield that was called the Bars, a colonial term for meadows. She later wrote a thirty-line ballad about the attack called Bars Fight, which describes the violent incident between the settlers and Native Americans.

"Bars Fight" was the first known poem written by a Black American. Terry was kidnapped and enslaved in Rhode Island as a child, but became free at age 26 after marrying a free Black man.

Because most of her works were not formally published, only the poem “Bars Fight” remains. A Deerfield resident, Harriet Hitchcock, recorded it from memory after Lucy Terry’s death. It was printed in 1855 (Josiah Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts) for the first time.

William Wells Brown

Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, was the first novel published by an African American, in 1853. It was written by abolitionist and lecturer William Wells Brown. A pioneer in travel writing, fiction, and drama, Brown was highly-acclaimed for the effectiveness of many of his writings.

The success of Fredrick Douglass’ narrative biography prompted Brown to write his own. The success of it took led him to travel in Europe between 1849 and 1854 where he delivered more than a thousand speeches. He also wrote two additional books.

William Wells Brown was one of the first writers inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame established in 2013. A public school was named after him in Lexington, Kentucky.


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